Five things we learned from this week’s Six Nations

Another week, another set of bogus predictions from the Whiff of Cordite boys.  I only hope all our loyal readers have been going to the bookies to lay exactly what we’ve been forecasting.  Wales to cut loose, Ireland to win a tight game and France to beat England.  Erm…

Ireland’s attack: now with 40% more penetration

Before the tournament, the one thing we asked – begged! – for was to see Ireland’s attack improve.  Credit to Deccie and Kiss; they have delivered.  Ireland look a threat with ball in hand now, and the flat, lateral play that characterised Ireland over the last couple of seasons has been largely dispatched – 13 tries in four games, and no fewer than two in any match, tells its own story.  It said a lot that even after a nervy, ponderous start, Ireland were willing to go to the corner with an early penalty, and take the game to the Scots.  It’s been a collective effort, but two players who deserve particular credit are Rob Kearney and Keith Earls.  Kearney’s counter-attacking has been a joy to watch, and Keith Earls has shown himself to be up to the job at 13.

Wales slam-in-waiting has echoes of Ireland in 2009

Wales have effectively won the Championship, barring a ridiculous set of results next week.  Their journey to the Grand Slam has been reminiscent of Ireland in 2009 – opening with an impressive flourish in the first match, before regressing a little with every game.  Ireland relied on an accurate kicking game, while Wales have fallen back on their power.  It’s almost as if they’ve bought into the press’ fawning over the size of their backline. No side that wins a Six Nations deserves to be sniffily treated, and less so one that wins a Grand Slam, as Wales surely will.  They are the best selected, best coached, and it would appear, fittest, team in the competition, but this is not a vintage championship.  Ireland, and indeed England, will not see them as especially superior, and are entitled to have some regrets.

Just how awesome is Richie Gray?

Very is the answer. Watching Scotland on Saturday was a little bit like watching Italy in recent times, when one player is just so much better than all his team-mates. Gray was physically and metaphorically head and shoulders above anyone else in a navy shirt, and indeed many in green. His try was a thing of beauty – Bob Kearney is getting some stick for buying Gray’s dummy, but Gray combined the dummy with a subtle change of angle and pace, and it was that, as much as anything, which did for Kearney. At times you felt he should step in at 10 to give Wee Greig a break – he most probably has the skills for it.

Gallic shrugs for all

It’s pretty clear France aren’t very engaged in this tournament. We thought they would stroll it, so mea culpas all round, but they just don’t seem too bothered. When they look like they might be embarrassing themselves, they step it up for a while (last quarter vs. Scotland, third quarter vs. Ireland, last 10 minutes vs. England), but generally aren’t too concerned. Why might this be? Well, PSA was roundly congratulated for his continuity, contrasting with Lievremont’s selections, but that has a flip side. Firstly, they were all physically and emotionally drained after the RWC. Secondly, the team’s key players are from Toulouse, Clermont and Biarritz – three teams with key months ahead, for differing reasons.

The rumour mill is already rife that Yachvili (and the FFR) would prefer to be with Biarritz to save them from relegation rather than devote time to Les Bleus. At the other end, Clermont are aiming for a unique double – and expect to see the Aurelien Rougerie we are used to and not the ponderous and disinterested passenger of the 6N when Les Jaunards pitch up in Lahndan in April. It’s not that the national jersey means nothing, it’s that these men can only give so much; and being a Basque, Catalan or Auvergnat is equally as important as being French.

And by the by, for a nation which professes to be in love with the drop goal, they’ve been utterly useless at them in this competition.

Lancaster’s investment in youth has paid off

England might have looked desperate at times, but they have done what they have needed to do, and, but for Mike Brown’s inability to fix a man, would be playing for the Championship this weekend. Lancaster tore up the tired old script and gave youth its head, and he has been rewarded. England are improving with every game, and it’s down to Owen Farrell (20), Manu Tuilagi (20), Ben Morgan (23), Alex Corbisiero (23), Chris Robshaw (23) and Brad Barritt (25). The youngsters are beginning to look comfortable in their surroundings, and England look in decent shape all of a sudden.

The test will of course come in adversity. Johnno tore up a pretty successful playbook after getting hockeyed by Ireland last year, and the result was a farcical RWC. England have their nemesis of recent times, a rejuvenated Ireland, up next, then a three test tour of South Africa at the end of a draining season. If their performances hold up, they don’t ship any heavy beatings, and they get two wins (or one if it comes in SA) from those four, England will have come through a very tough time to get to a pretty good place.

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World Cup Preview: Scotland

Group B Opposition: Argentina, England, Georgia, Romania

Pedigree: Perennial quarter-finalists, never once failing to make the last eight. In 1991, they went one better, and were a Gavin Hastings shanked kick away from the final. Last time out, they nearly took Argentina from the long grass.

Players to watch: Lets be honest, this Scotland squad is pretty low on inspiration. However, that isn’t to say they are hopeless. In Richie Gray, they have a man who will be a Lion in 2 years time, and who the pack will be built around for many years to come. Sean Lamont is a rare example of a leader in Andy Robinson’s team – his criticism of his team-mates during last years 6 Nations showed he was willing to step up. Another potential Lion is Max Evans out wide.

Good Tournament: Given the amount of gloom currently hanging over them, a quarter-final would be seen as an achievement, although a 50 point demolition by the All Blacks is a dubious reward.

Bad Tournament: Giving Argentina and England decent games is the baseline, even if they get edged out in both, but if they come close to humiliation against Romania or (especially) Georgia, Scottish hearts will sink even further.

Prospects: Whiff of Cordite sat in Croker in 2010 and watched in astonishment as the Killer B’s dealt with the much-vaunted Irish back row with ease. That really should have completed a deserved Triple Crown for the Scots – a one in a million collapse against Wales and a draw against England  were both games that should have been won. Come November, when they followed it up with victory over South Africa – their second Southern Hemisphere scalp in two years – we were expecting a big 6 Nations.

But it didn’t happen. Andy Robinson took a step back and let the team take it to the next level – sink or swim time. And boy did they sink. A decent second half against a disinterested France and taking advantage of indiscipline to run Ireland close were as good as it got. At least they beat Italy, but the tournament was hugely disappointing, with the performance against Wales in Murrayfield among the worst test performances in living memory.

After that, Robbo withdrew what passes for his big guns from ML action, targetting the World Cup. Allowing for summer rustiness, a last minute win over (at best) the Ireland reserves was just better than unacceptable. Next up is Italy, then its playing the firsts into form against Romania and (gulp) Georgia. It’s eerily similar to Ireland’s preparation in 2007, and just ask Eddie how that turned out. Mind you, at least they’re skipping the Polish cryotherapy chambers and the Bayonne day trip.

This really is a make or break tournament for Scotland – they pretty much got the best draw possible, and are under pressure to take advantage of it, something they haven’t thrived under in the past. If they do blow-up, Robbo will likely head back home, and it’s back to the drawing board once more.

Verdict: Things are not looking hot. England will have too much, and Argentina should beat them in a mucky kick-fest. The real dread in Scottish hearts is what the Georgians might do to them – it’s safe to argue that Scotland have the worst scrum in Group B. If they manage to dispatch Georgia comfortably, they might just have the confidence to take on the Pumas and battle through. We don’t think it will happen though. A proud record to come to an end – out at the first hurdle.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle … Part 1

Today and Thursday we’ll run through the the potential Lions team to play against Australia in 2013. We’re going to start with who we see in pole position, who to watch for, who needs to improve and who will be too old. I’m going to cup the testicles of the forwards and ask them to cough today, and Palla will be giving the backs a thorough probing on Thursday.

As time goes on, we plan to re-visit our team, and presumably try to rationalize why we got it so wrong.

Unlike backs who can burst into the first team and stay there, forwards tend to improve incrementally. Hence most bolters are backs – we expect that any forward who could tour would be in first team by now – don’t expect too many shocking names below.

Front Row:

Pole position: Gethin Jenkins, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole. Jenkins might be 33 in 2013 but he is still the best loose-head in the NH, although Cian Healy will be hard on his heels by then. Healy’s international team-mate Mike Ross is probably better than Cole now, but won’t be in 2013. Hartley could be captain but for his accent.

Look out for: Alex Corbisiero and the returning Matt Stevens at prop, and the future Irishman Richardt Strauss at hooker.

Needs to improve: Ross Ford, although as a non-awful Scotland player, he will probably tour anyway. Matthew Rees is the easy option but he is pretty uninspiring.

Too late for: Jirry certainly, possibly Adam Jones and Rory Best as well. Euan Murray checked out a while ago.

Second Row:

Pole position: Richie Gray, Courtney Lawes. These 2 are the future. Lawes added proper meat to his game last season, which was especially evident against Ulster. Paul O’Connell will tour as an elder statesman, but probably not start.

Look out for: Dan Tuohy – Ireland have not produced a real dynamic lock forward in a while – if Tuohy takes Donncha’s shirt next year, he will be the ideal deputy for Gray.

Needs to improve: Alun Wyn Jones’ athleticism might be very useful in Oz, but he will need to get back to 2008 form.

Too late for: Tom Palmer, Nathan Hines and Donncha. Presumably the miracle man Shawsy will have finally gone by 2013. Biiiiiiiiiig Bob might be too old (and immobile) as well.

Back Row:

Pole position: Sean O’Brien, Sam Warburton, Jeamie Heaslip. SOB just pips Fez for the blindside shirt, but the Samoans showed how raw power can upset the Wallabies, so Fez might still take it. Warburton is already a key man for Wales, and could be Welsh captain by 2013. Heaslip could be Lions captain.

Look out for: Tom Wood – if he continues his upward trajectory, he will contend for the 6 shirt. Ben Morgan becomes Welsh next year – the young Scarlets number 8 is a huge prospect.

Needs to improve: If John Barclay becomes the John Barclay on 2009, he has to go. The above goes for Johnnie Beattie as well. Tom Croft has the game, and just needs to re-discover his career momentum – the blinside flank is a crowded place. Le Hasque can cover both flanks, but needs to be a little more skillful.

Too late for: Wally *sniff* – what a man.